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most profitable artists

The year 2020 was particularly difficult for the art market, between cancellations of major fairs and temporary closures of auction houses and galleries. But that didn’t stop some works from skyrocketing in price. Among the most profitable artists last year were Picasso, Zao Wou-Ki, Basquiat, Banksy and Matthew Wong.

Art sales reached US$10.1 billion in 2020. That’s a 23.7% drop from the previous year, according to Artnet data. Despite these alarming figures, some artists have fared better than others.

This is particularly true of Rembrandt, who was the most popular of European Old Masters at auction last year. In total, his works generated more than $21.5 million. The Dutch painter was followed by Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, whose paintings sold for $18.9 million and $18.8 million respectively.

And female artists? 

In the Impressionist and Modern Art category, Pablo Picasso was the most popular with art collectors. Works by the Spanish painter sold for nearly $248.3 million. Among them is “Les femmes d’Alger,” which was sold for $29.2 million during Christie’s big four-city “relay” sale. Franco-Chinese artist Sanyu and Irish-British painter Francis Bacon came second and third in this category.

In postwar art, Zao Wou-Ki, David Hockney and Andy Warhol are among the top three. Two women are among the ten most profitable artists in 2020 in this category: Joan Mitchell and Yayoi Kusama. Their works were sold for more than $139.3 million. This is less than the sales prices of works by painter and printmaker Zao Wou-Ki.

Banksy makes a splash

Jean-Michel Basquiat has risen to become the most profitable contemporary artist of 2020, ahead of Banksy and Yoshitomo Nara. The British street artist recently made headlines following the sale of “Game Changer,” a black and white work paying tribute to caregivers. It was sold for £16.75 million ($23.1 million), setting a new record for Banksy.

Among ultra-contemporary artists, Matthew Wong took the lead. The paintings of the late Canadian painter sold for $24.7 million. One of them, entitled “Shangri-La,” exceeded its estimate of $700,000 to reach the unprecedented sum of $4.47 million in October at Christie’s.

For the latest edition of its Intelligence Report, Artnet also analyzed the nationalities of the most successful artists at auction in 2020. While Spain’s Pablo Picasso was the undisputed champion in all categories, collectors particularly appreciated works by Chinese artists. Americans and French followed.

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